Todd Robinson on poesy

In the February 2016 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, in her essay “How to Give a Killer Reading” Christine Vines discusses great readings, such as a reading that “grabs hold of you and shakes you awake.” She talks about selecting what to read, how to prepare, and the delivery. Leading up to the moment when you approach the microphone, what do you do to ready yourself for that moment? What killer readings have you attended and what made them memorable?

In the days leading up to a reading I curate the poems, getting a sense of movement out of them, of controlled drift, of satisfying lilt and proportion. Then I read them aloud to myself a few times, to make sure there aren’t any that jar or clash with whatever mood I’m trying to make. I want to be respectful of the audience and whatever time constraints I’m under, and to attempt varying points of pitch and emphasis, varying voices. When I’m reasonably comfortable with the pieces and their order, I run through it all one last time, as close to the microphone moment as I can get, so I know the modulations of pace, so I can lift my eyes from the paper from time to time and take in the faces of the listeners, so I have something to remember when the crackle and fester of the experience is gone. Not to belabor the answer, but when I’m walking toward the microphone I’m almost in a dissociative fugue, the energy barely containable. I’ve probably read two hundred times, but it’s always the same frisson:  time dilating, my heart thrashing, everything at once watery and crystalline. In short, I prepare diligently for the audience’s sake, that they might enjoy my timbre and vision, but also for my own sake, because I can barely keep my hands on the tiller when I’m throttling down the whale-road of poesy.


I love readings like I love few other things, so I always leave buzzed and transformed, but some do stand out from the throng:  Albert Goldbarth read to a dozen acolytes in Lincoln fifteen years ago, and bedazzled with hand jive as much as with word jive:  that cat was body and mind, mouth and feet, funny and brilliant and all in though almost no one was there, scores of empty chairs. Matt Mason always dazzles me, a Dionysian puppet on celestial strings. The same goes for Stacey Waite, whose poems of hilarious hurt are delivered in a brawling, charming meter that is hers and hers alone. The single profoundest reading I’ve ever attended was last year in Minneapolis, at the Loft Literary Center, a slam featuring readers of color. The hurt and the hope in those faces, those voices, the room packed with listeners going gaga over it all. Patricia Smith was the closer, and her voice, so full of honey and iron, the words so expertly assembled as they called out injustices local and global, as they sang and skipped and caterwauled, that throat low as a bass note, good humor lighting her eyes—it was unforgettable.


I had the opportunity to attend your reading with Lisa Sandlin at Mo Java in Lincoln, Nebraska recently. While presenting your work, you talked about inspiration and interruption, and navigating family life while trying to create. In her new book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Forgive yourself if you tried to create something and it didn’t work out. Remember that you’re nothing but a beginner—even if you’ve been working on your craft for years. We’re all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners.” Talk about writing and failure.

Ah, failure, it is my meter and my métier, my daymare and my night-hag. When I allow myself to assess myself, I am ever vexed at who I see. Seventeen years ago I published my first poem in a national magazine (“The Lunar Cycle of Cabbage” in The Southeast Review), and have landed but a score more poems since then. I have one slim volume to my name, and while a full-length collection festers on my desk, I have been neither productive nor accomplished in the many moons since my first success. I have a hundredfold as many failed poems as successful ones, heaps of abortive fragments, enough rejection letters to fill the happiest heart with hate. Yet I persist, and try, try, try not to judge myself too severely. I AM a beginner, for I have surely not accrued ten thousand hours in service to this trade. And the last two years have seen an unprecedented uptick in my makings, with perhaps forty poems I do not despise wrought in that period. I’m furthest from failure when I’m least cognizant of the world outside myself, when the words are allowed to burble in my mind’s mouth without a flicker of doubt, without awareness of the ten times ten thousand poets who dwarf me in their prowess. (Just yesterday I had another stab of self-hatred whilst reading Terrance Hayes’ Hip Logic, a book so structurally and syntactically astute it made me want to climb on my own bier and light it with his poesy.) In short, failure, yes, often and well, with more to come, ever near, always drear, but it is ultimately just a little game I play with myself, for it is a subjective measure, and my life and art feel big, and it doesn’t help me to enervate them with meaningless judgments. (Yet I do.)


Taped to the wall beside my desk, I have your poem “A McDonald’s in Nebraska.” (One published in The New Magazine. The Backwaters Press also posted a video of it here.) There’s so much urgency and hope in this hope in this poem as it attends to youth, poetry, service work, and consumer culture. We’ve talked about failure. Can you talk about success? How do you know when a poem is working? How do you gage success?

I know a poem is working when I lose all self-consciousness and consciousness of self, when the world recedes to a vanishing point and I am left with nothing but the spill of words. This usually manifests itself in two kinds of ways. One is an intricate, demanding, building-a-puzzle process, which I felt with “A McDonalds in Nebraska,” a piece based on Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” I had Ginsberg’s poem propped open before me as I read and reread, charting its waters and windings. Then I extrapolated from it line by line, turning his California supermarket into a Nebraska McDonald’s. Why, you might ask? The reasons are manifold:  because I had an impending Encyclopedia show deadline and the topic was fast food. Because my first job was at McDonald’s and I wanted to redeem that ill-paid sweat. Because I have been smitten with Jim Daniels’ poem “Short Order Cook” since first I read it. Because Fast Food Nation cinched my nascent vegetarianism. All of this was gyring in me, and Ginsberg’s long and loving lines were the perfect superstructure on which to construct my own reminiscences and yearnings. Sentence by sentence I built upon his foundation, knowing nothing but the need to wend my way toward the end, to speak the unspoken truths that had so long sizzled on the griddle of my subconscious. The other way to know when a poem is working is the full-on trance, when one isn’t so much an architect but a medium, not building, but transcribing. When the words will not be stopped, when the phrases turn and burn without conscious control, I know something rare and beautiful is happening. As for gauging success, it is perhaps an intuition borne of long study and loving care:  the poem is idiosyncratic, self-contained, replete with its own sound and sense. It reeks of the musk of its own making. It is propulsive and dramatic and well-proportioned. It is comprehensible and inhabitable. Success means there is music in its leaves and muscle in its roots.


How do you define chapbook? Something small that feels big, like Pandora’s box or a pocket dimension.

What makes a good chapbook? Cohesion, sprawl, sturdiness, slapdashness, cheek, sobriety:  it can be a concatenation or a dust mote tumble and be good. In short:  see above.


What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  Miles Waggener’s Afterlives makes me quake. I continue to swoon over Shelly Geiser’s The Cockroach Monologues (vol. 1), a bravura exercise in bug point-of-view. Shelly’s daughter, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, has a masterful volume in Wither Weather. I intend to plagiarize all three of them when I’m finally smart enough to do so.


What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I was given Martha Collins’s Gone So Far to review for Prairie Schooner ages ago, and it taught me much about the power of found language to unnerve and enlighten. The final piece, “Her Poem,” is comprised entirely of words uttered by Collins’s mother, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. A decade on, I still shiver when I read that second line, “We’re in the membership of the trees.” Susan Aizenberg’s Muse was the first letterpress book I owned, and it about makes my eyes ache, it’s so lovely (Alison Wilson, printer par excellence, marry me.) Matt Mason’s When the Bough Breaks is his most confessional work, and taught me much of the power of self-revelation and vulnerability. I also spent of lot of (unsuccessful) hours trying to rip off Steve Langan’s dark modulations in Notes on Exile.


What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I look for weak darlings to kill. You can bury some chaff in a long collection, but in a chapbook the warts will always out.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Read more, write more, work more, dream more.

What’s next for you? My first full-length collection is about to be shopped to some contests. I’m also applying for a writing residency for the first time. I’ve got poems out to three or four great journals, and continue to teach and scribble. Something old, something new…


Current chapbook reading list: I picked up Franz Wright’s The Writing at AWP ’15 (Argos Books FTW!), and it hurts me in beautiful ways. Jim Reese’s Wedding Cake and Funeral Ham just landed on my table, and is most nourishing. I’m rereading Megan Gannon’s The Witch’s Index and finding all sorts of new secrets within. She, like Terrance Hayes, makes me sort of hate myself for being so dumb.


Number of chapbooks you own: 33? 44? The exact number eludes me, but I’m certain it is divisible by 11.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: At least 33.


Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I’ve taught writing for a long time, and have recently seen students publish chapbooks (Zach Vesper and Aurora Moreno, I dampen your pages with my grateful tears). Working on these questions has galvanized my commitment as well. I’ll confess that I’ve mostly read either individual poems or full-length collections the last few years, but pulling out all my chapbooks to prep for this interview has renewed my love for the form. It really is the bedrock of all poesy, no? The Song of Solomon is basically a chapbook! I henceforth dedicate my life to reading, writing, and publishing chapbooks!

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: When a friend publishes a chapbook, I buy three copies and give two away to sow those seeds. I teach them, as well. (Recommendations welcome!)

Your chapbook credo: Can I get those stitches in leather?

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: AWP!

Your chapbook wish: That the wee volume be afforded the respect it deserves.

Residence: A crumbling manse on a hill in Omaha.

Job: Adjunct Professor, Writer’s Workshop, University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Chapbook education: In the beginning? Prufrock and Other Poems. Thenceforth? Grace Bauer taught a lively chapbook class at UNL, where I photocopied my first effort, Blue Plaid Angst. Lately? Friends (Liz Ahl, Lindsey Baker, Greg Kosmicki, etc.) and the good strangers at AWP. The world teems with chapbooks!

Chapbook Bio: My own entry in the genre, Note at Heart Rock, was runner-up in the 2012 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest.

tr int


You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.